I have not always been a good guy, and I have not always lived a good life. I have committed sins venial, carnal and culinary, have knowingly done wrong and sometimes enjoyed it quite a bit. I have vices, secret shames, public hatreds, a checkered past -- and remain, in large part, unrepentant. But I no longer have any fear of death, because I have been to hell.
And had dinner there.
It wasn't the classical hell of fire and brimstone and lakes of burning oil, but I was a cook for nearly fifteen years, so that stuff ceased to scare me long ago. I've also worked for Frenchmen, so Old Man Splitfoot holds no horror for me. In all the time I spent in Sunday school, I don't remember anyone describing tortures of which the Devil was capable that weren't visited tenfold upon my delicate, tender self by the chefs for whom I've labored. Trust me: A flaming pitchfork in the ass would be a walk in the park compared to a red-hot spatula laid with violence across the back of the neck.
No, hell to me is seeing something you love destroyed, debased, tarted up and repackaged for the lowest common denominator. Hell is corporate menus and soulless cookery and any dining room with a gift shop attached. It's those little buzzy pager things you're given in chain restaurants when the wait is going to be long. It's robotic waitrons who stare over your head while mumbling their way through some memorized company spiel about the "dining experience" at their corporate crab shack/steakhouse/trattoria/taqueria, and "house specials" that are exactly the same as the "house specials" served in Houston, Kemah and Nashville.
Hell is having to wait for the privilege of eating in such a place, while you watch mobs of people eagerly lining up to lay down good money to enter the pit -- conclusively proving that there's an endless supply of customers who would gladly crap on everything you love for a plate of popcorn shrimp and an eight-dollar cocktail called the "Shiver Me Timbers."
Hell is the Aquarium, a restaurant so generic it doesn't even warrant a proper name. It's in the former home of Colorado's Ocean Journey (that high-priced and very public failure that was left high and dry when Denverites showed themselves unwilling to pay twenty bucks just to see some trout), which was purchased last year by Landry's Restaurants Inc., a Texas-based multi-brand conglomerate that owns such charming bastions of culinary innovation as the Joe's Crab Shack, Rainforest Cafe and Landry's Seafood House chains, as well as three other Aquarium restaurants. When Ocean Journey came on the block, Landry's got locked into a bidding war with Ripley's Entertainment, of Ripley's Believe It or Not fame -- the only stranger owner I could possibly imagine -- and finally won the place for a staggering $13.6 million. After evicting most of the fish and tigers and otters and whatnot that couldn't be used to drive profits, Landry's put another $15 million into a renovation that involved cramming a restaurant, a bar and -- no joke -- a ballroom (which is available for weddings, in case you're so inclined) into the first floor. The Downtown Aquarium opened in July this year; this month, I finally took the plunge and ventured there for dinner.
We went at 7 p.m. on a Saturday -- prime time for any real restaurant, and an hour when I figured any themed fish restaurant in an aquarium would be as empty as a themed barbecue restaurant in a pork-processing plant. I'd laughed when Laura suggested we make reservations, but she made them anyway. And they weren't even real reservations, but something called "priority seating" that allegedly moves your name to the top of the wait list, above all the walk-in traffic, provided you showed up at the appointed time.
Parking was six dollars in the lot across the street -- and you have no choice but to pay it unless you fancy a several-block jaunt, which we didn't. We rushed the doors to get out of the cold and then had to walk, Disneyland-style, through the gift shop to reach the hostess stand. There seemed to be an awful lot of people wandering through aisles full of Aquarium-centric gewgaws and commemorative shot glasses -- children and parents, old folks, huge groups of giggling teenagers. The hostess apologized when she couldn't find our priority-seating request, promised it would be no more than fifteen minutes or so before a table opened, and handed me one of those buzzy pager things I so loathe.
It was sticky.
I dodged around the knot of hostesses, seaters and greeters clotted up around the entrance to the dining room, and realized I had misjudged my fellow man. The place was packed; every booth, every table, every chair was full.
We immediately retreated (through the gift shop again) to the bar, the Dive Lounge. There we snagged the last available table and paid fifteen bucks for an Aqua Martini and a draft Fat Tire served in one of those cheater's pilsner glasses made of thick glass and tapered to the bottom, holding a half-pint maybe. But I was thankful for whatever tiny oblivion the booze might buy.
The bar, the gift shop, the restaurant -- everywhere you can get to while waiting in increasing fury for that little buzzer thing to go off -- is done up in a continuous coral-reef theme: the ocean floor as envisioned by a crazed hippie marine biologist. Day-Glo anemone wiggle from every nook, neon shells and fans are stuck in every cranny and mobiles of brightly colored fish depend from wires hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The centerpiece of it all -- the only thing that elevates the decor above the set of a third-grade production of Finding Nemo -- is the 200,000-gallon fish tank that now squats horribly where the Ocean Journey otter habitat once sat. The tank is filled with fish endlessly swimming back and forth, gawping at their piscine brethren being devoured on the other side of the glass, all to the screeching delight of squirming fat children with shrimp in their fists and cocktail sauce in their hair.
There are sharks -- little black-tips (very good eating) and bigger, dead-eyed sand sharks -- because sharks are the only things people really want to see in an aquarium. Unless, of course, they're coming to see Santa in a mask and scuba tank swimming around with said sharks, which apparently had happened just that morning during the seasonal "Breakfast With Santa" -- because nothing says Christmas in the Rockies like a fat guy in a fake beard and rebreather dumped into a tropical fish tank. I wondered if staffers had taken bets on how long it would be before one of those sand sharks bit Santa's leg off. Hours later, I could swear the place still stank of wet beard and despair.
After waiting an hour, I counted 45 people still ahead of us and realized that this represented my purgatory, the lobby of lost souls in which I could linger for an eternity if I so chose. Instead, I returned my pager, bought myself a great white shark mask and a box of sea monkeys in the gift shop, and we left.
But we were back the next afternoon, hoping to beat the worst of the crowds that would descend après-Broncos. We strolled arm in arm past the bar, past the freaky faux reefs, through the gift shop and up to the hostess stand, where we requested a table right up against the tank. Which we got, along with a server who gave us his blank-eyed spiel about the fish, the sharks, the swimming Santa, and how, if we had any questions about the sea life either in the tank or on our plates, we could just ask.
And we did, pestering him about sharks and clownfish and poison dart frogs even though every page of the thick menu included detailed information about sharks and clownfish and poison dart frogs. It was a test, and he passed it with a vacant smile stapled up around his earlobes, suggesting all the while that we try the "house special" shrimp-and-crab dip that was a "nationwide bestseller" and save room for dessert because the Aquarium had "one of the finest pastry staffs in the city."
Let me repeat that: The Aquarium had one of the finest pastry staffs in the city. If that was actually the case, I vowed to kill myself on the spot.
The shrimp-and-crab dip was essentially the same stuff my mom used to throw together to impress the ladies in her mothers' group back when I was still sweating my way through Sunday school -- a mix of frozen shrimp, canned crab, some cheese and a lot of mayonnaise, baked and served with "toast points" (bias-sliced stale baguette in this case, with the acidic, sour flavor of mass production and stabilizing agents). We'd also ordered the lettuce-wrap appetizer platter, which was the largest portion of anything I've ever seen served at any restaurant anywhere. Calling it a "platter" doesn't do it justice; the salver it came on was the size of a decent side table and held an entire cored head of lettuce, pounds of cubed, grilled chicken, flat noodles in sesame oil, red cabbage, peanuts and sliced, marinated cucumber.
Landry's is the land of big portions and big appetites. Big groups of people come here looking for big plates, and the kitchen delivers on the promise of food served by the yard and by the pound. Combo plates on this menu could feed a family of four -- a Captain's Platter of broiled catfish, stuffed shrimp, stuffed crab, jumbo shrimp, scallops, oysters Rockefeller, rice and veg all together on the same plate, a mixed grill of smoked salmon, filet mignon, more big shrimp and au gratin potatoes -- and the appetizers could satiate a whole table and still send folks home with leftovers. Laura had a bowl of chicken alfredo pasta, dressed in a pasty parmesan-cheese sauce and leaning toward carbonara with its bacon and spinach and mushrooms and pointless bits of tomato confetti. I had an Asian preparation of sea bass speckled with black and white sesame seeds, because it seemed like the most complicated, labor-intensive dish on the menu (and therefore the one least likely to be ordered by my fellow diners, who seemed to be into fried anything in a big way). The menu described it as sake-glazed and served in a shiso broth with Asian vegetables and shrimp dumplings. What I got was a huge, decent piece of fish, burned on the bottom from having been finished on the flat-grill, appropriately dotted with sesame, swimming in what tasted like beef ramen choked with carrot sticks, napa cabbage and dumplings filled with wads of shrimp paste that was like jellied fish food wrapped in pastry dough and deep-fried.
After that, we just had to sample the efforts of the Aquarium's pastry staff. The spiced strawberry shortcake was a tumbled pile of shortcake rounds that tasted like quartered grocery-store angel-food cake, ladled with unspiced strawberries in out-of-a-can strawberry syrup, covered with whipped cream and crowned with a tuille cookie that was supposed to look like a seahorse but instead resembled Abraham Lincoln in profile.
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For all this, we paid a hundred bucks.
And yet I returned again.
This time, I went no further than the Dive Lounge. What I wanted was my Hunter Thompson, Circus Circus Merry-Go-Round bar moment, haggling with a midget over the price of a polar bear (or, in this case, with a drunken marine biologist over the price of my own otter). Instead, what I got was pleasantly smashed while servers bad-mouthed the customers and customers bad-mouthed the servers; while Harry Connick Jr. sang zydeco Christmas carols and the sharks swam languidly by, dreaming of eating Santa; while kids smeared boogers on the glass of the tank; while the hordes of people came and went and came again. What I got was another vision of my own private hell.
And now I'm done, comforted by the assurance that I don't have to go back to the Aquarium anytime soon, but knowing that someday -- someday far in the future, I hope -- I'll be there for all eternity.